Brownout in the Electric City

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Adams Avenue, downtown, at night.

Vice President Joe Biden, famously a Scranton native, was parodied on Saturday Night Live by actor Jason Sudeikis calling it “the single worst place on Earth.” Real stores sell T-shirts and bumper stickers for Dunder-Mifflin, the fictional paper company featured in The Office TV show.

Over a hundred years ago, though, the first successful streetcar trolley in the United States started running in Scranton, giving this Pennsylvania industrial town the nickname of “The Electric City.” Growing to over 140,000 people by the Second World War, coal mining, steam railroads, and the manufacturing of lace and plastics created a booming destination for immigrants and businesses.

Decline came with “progress”. Interstate highways killed the railroads. Coal ran out and silk and textiles were outsourced to other countries. The Capitol Records factory that pressed Beatles records became a warehouse for architectural salvage – wood and metal craftsmanship ripped out of condemned buildings – the irony is that nothing of equal quality is made anymore in places like Scranton. The population is half of what it used to be; many downtown buildings stand vacant and shuttered.


Punch lace pattern cards for the looms, abandoned in 2002.

The Scranton Lace Company employed over 1400 workers in its prime. It’s a sprawling industrial complex that had its own power plant, bowling alley, theater, and landmark clock tower. The huge looms were imported from Nottingham, England at the beginning of the twentieth century. But the factory closed ten years ago, and ghostly pieces of fabric are stuck in the machines that were turned off mid-shift, never to be restarted. A real estate developer is gutting the property to turn it into residential lofts, hoping that the city’s fortunes will rebound.

Scranton still tries hard. The handsome Lackawanna County Court House in the central square is surrounded by a well-manicured park, a comfortable coffee shop, and several restaurants. The Art Deco Masonic Lodge houses a large theater that hosts touring Broadway shows and concerts. The Steamtown National Historic site was developed as a tourist destination and the old train station turned into a fancy hotel.

But the recession hit harder. Half the stores in the mall went under. Small bookstores and theaters closed. The zoo in the city park, a modest structure built by the WPA in the 1930s, was shut down after lack of funding made it one of the worst zoos in the country for animal cruelty.


The factory floor at the Avanti Parodi Cigar Company.

Residents individually fight to maintain the working and middle class livelihoods they once took for granted. A lot of employment is low-paid and part-time, without benefits. Service jobs are a poor replacement for skilled manufacturing, and young people do their best to leave for better opportunities elsewhere. But some come back after finding those hopes illusory, and the cost of living too high in New York and Philadelphia.

By July, there was less than $5000 in the city’s treasury. Mayor Chris Doherty took the draconian step of putting hundreds of municipal employees, including the police and fire services – and himself – on $7.25 an hour, minimum wage, for two weeks. A desperate deal was brokered which asks for “voluntary” contributions from the region’s largest employers: non-profit hospitals and universities that pay no taxes. While not technically bankrupt, Scranton’s financial crisis is only the most recent and visible indicator of its persistent struggle. The local unemployment rate remains above 9% even as it’s dipped nationwide.

PHOTOGRAPHS + TEXT by Alan Chin / facingchange.org

Photo Editor: Mark Rykoff

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